Teaching Kids to Think

“What were you thinking?” the exasperated dad asked his little one who had just tried to set his cup of juice on the edge of the high chair tray. The edge that has a lip on it to keep in any juice that spills inside the tray.


It seemed like a logical question. But one year olds don’t excel in logic. Neither to two year olds, five year olds or teenagers.


Parents are partly to blame for the lack of thinking in their children. We sometimes devote all our energy to looking out for the consequences of each action to preventing anything from coming close to harming our kids. A fellow grandparent observed last week’s school closing due to cold weather and commented, “We’re afraid to allow our children to stand at a bus stop these days.”


He’s right. We child-proof the living room, put away anything that could possibly break. We select the clothing of our young ones after listening to the forecast high for the day. We move to the neighborhood where we see children playing outside and select the schools with the best reputation for good teaching and high achievement. We prevent dangerous outcomes from occurring around our children but we also prevent something much more important from happening: their development in how to think for themselves.


The Search Institute publishes a five-letter reminder called, “REACH” to strengthen student motivation. The fourth letter describes the goal of cognition, “When we teach students to think about their own thinking, it strengthens their ability to manage learning and control impulses.” How can you teach a child to think about thinking?


The first step is stop doing all their thinking for them. Following them around telling them all the things that will happen if they do what they are doing isn’t teaching them anything. Preventing all danger or picking out all their clothing at the store and from the closet won’t include them in the thinking process.


Questions allow thinking—when followed by silence. Many of our questions are programmed with a half-second delay before providing the answer. Encourage their participation in the thinking process by using choices; give them two options you are willing to live with—and let them choose the green shirt or the blue shirt. Offer juice or milk. Let them eat first or dress first in the morning. Choices are the building blocks of thinking.


Thought questions are the real goal for developing cognition. What do you think will happen if you leave that there? Why do you think those kids are wearing shorts in 20-degree weather? How would you like to spend some free time this Saturday morning? Even better, “What will you have to do before you can get dressed?” Thinking about thinking takes some practice for all of us.


Our children will respond well to the freedom to think. They will begin making better decisions, exercise more self-control and develop the ability to manage their own learning over time. The motivation to think comes with the opportunity to do some thinking on your own. Allowing those smaller consequences to occur connects their thoughts with those consequences. Cleaning up the milk helps prevent more spills. Letting them spend the day without their coat encourages them to remember their coat tomorrow.


Why not spend some time planning ways to teach your child to think about their own thinking?

Dr. Matt Crain writes weekly for the Sunday newspaper from his Connecting Fathers and Families ministry.